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Make Networking Work for You

How can you work the network? Use both e-mail and the telephone (what's often called "dialing for dollars"), and then follow up, follow up, follow up. Assume that no one will actually do anything they commit to doing without at least three follow-up calls from you. Many people think that networking involves contacting friends and acquaintances for help, or making a list of anyone they've ever known and getting in touch with them. That's true. That's the easy part. Networking also involves cold-calling. Contacting complete strangers. Sometimes, using strangers to refer you to other strangers. The key here is that when you use someone's name, the other person will hardly ever ask you how you know the person whose name you drop. All you'll have to do is say simply, "I was referred to you by . . ." If you should be asked how you know the person whose name you dropped, simply say, "I asked him for advice and he suggested. . . ."

A good way to begin the process is to send people an e-mail indicating you'll be calling them within the next few days. It will be very unusual for someone to remember the e-mail, but it gives you a starting point. It also allows you to say to the administrative assistant or other gatekeeper, without completely stretching the truth, that the person you want to reach is "expecting your call." Once you get them on the phone, you want the conversation to go something like this:

Introduce yourself with a referral. "Hello. My name is…and I'm following up on the e-mail I sent you. Do you recall it? Oh, you don't. I can certainly appreciate the fact that you get many e-mails each day. Well, I was talking with (the person who gave you the name of this contact) and she suggested I contact you."

Explain why you're calling. "I am a (recent grad, career changer, industry expert, etc.). I'm looking for some help on (be specific about what you need help on, such as your résumé, getting a handle on the job market, learning about the industry, etc.) and (name your referral) tells me that you'd be the perfect person to (compliment the person you're talking to)."

Attempt to appeal to someone you are cold-calling. Assuming you're talking to a member of top management, check out the company's Website. Pick up some information from recent news releases. Go to the employment section. Find that person's biography and read his or her background and accomplishments. Now you're on your way. Talk to the person about:
  • His or her reputation in the industry
  • His or her sense of pride about the company
  • Some accomplishment achieved
  • His or her position in the community
  • The views you share on an important issue
  • A common organization that you belong to (e.g., you graduated from the same school)
  • A shared ethnic background
  • Other shared life experiences

Prove you're worth talking to. Here's where you have to hook the person. For instance, you might say, "I have (give a strong accomplishment that relates to the specific area you want to ask them about). I'm looking for some advice and would really appreciate your help on how to (market myself, write my resume, answer interview questions, prepare a career plan) and wonder if you'd be kind enough to spend maybe fifteen minutes to meet with me."

If he is busy and puts you off, suggest an alternative time. "I realize how busy you are. Could you spare just a few minutes of your time? I could come in early or meet you late or do it on a weekend. How about…?"

If he  says no to meeting, make the most of the phone call. "Well, I can certainly appreciate the fact that you're too busy to meet. Would you mind if I asked you a couple of quick questions now?" (Ask questions that you have prepared in advance.)

If he  has no time for questions, offer a compromise. "Well, I can understand how busy you must be. Would you be willing to critique my résumé via e-mail? I could send it to you. . . ." (The longer you can keep people on the phone, the more likely they are to agree to meet with you. Give them plenty of opportunity to do that. If he agrees to a meeting, be sure to send him an e-mail confirming the appointment. Many executives rely on someone else to make appointments for them and are very bad about setting appointments on their own.)

If he still can't meet with you, ask for a referral. "Thank you anyhow for taking the time to talk with me. I'm sorry I won't have an opportunity to meet you. I really would have liked that. I can certainly understand why you're not able to give me some help on my résume. Is there anyone else you can think of who may be able to give me some additional advice?"

If he can't think of anyone, prompt him with an idea. "Perhaps an employee of yours or a colleague in another company, or someone from one of the professional associations you belong to. . . ."

Close the conversation. "Thanks for your help. May I call you again sometime, if I'm still looking for advice?"

Now you're ready to make your next phone call, and you can start out that conversation by saying, "I was talking to…and he suggested I contact you." What if you're actually able to get in to see the person? What then? Well, have a list of questions. Go in with pen and paper in hand. Here are a few ideas about what to ask:

  • How did you decide to enter this field?
  • What has been your career path? Is that typical for someone in your position?
  • What do you like most about your job? What do you like least?
  • Do you have any regrets about what you've done in your career?
  • What are the important skills that lead to success?
  • What am I missing in my background that would help me in this field?
  • What professional organizations do you suggest I join?
  • What does the trend look like for employment in this field?
  • What companies might be interested in someone with my experience? Do you have any contacts there?
  • What do you think I should emphasize in my resume? What should I deemphasize?
  • What job-search techniques do you recommend?
  • What kind of experience do you think I should look for in my next job?
  • What conventions or professional meetings should I attend to make more contacts?
  • What should I be doing in this field to get more visibility and credibility?
  • Is there someone within your organization who might be willing to talk to me?

Always send an e-mail thanking your contacts for their time and telling them how much you appreciate their help. Keep good records on each meeting, too. If one of your contacts says something such as, "Feel free to get back to me if I can be of additional help," then go back to him at a later time, if necessary, and remind him that the two of you spoke.